Modern Culture Discriminates Against Certain Populations with Eating Disorders

Modern Culture Discriminates Against Certain Populations with Eating Disorders

McKenna Christy, Contributing Writer, Columbus OH

I began researching the lack of eating disorder recognition in U.S. legislation when a few key words in my search bar recommended a thesis written by Alexa Riobueno-Naylor titled “‘Not Just a White Woman’s Disease’: Radicalizing Eating Disorder Knowledge.” A feeling of ignorance clouded over me when I started reading the essay, because I’ve never had to think about the marginalization of people of color and those of the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to ED support. But it’s clear to me now that before advocating for eating disorders in healthcare policies altogether, there needs to be change in the research, treatment, and diagnosis process of eating disorders to be radically more inclusive than they currently are. We must understand that “focusing on thin white girls diverts attention from the uncomfortable reality of what it is like to live in a fat body, a brown body, or poor body in a racist, fat-phobic, capitalist society,” according to Riobueno-Naylor.

I can also admit, being a white, middle-class teenage girl who struggles with disordered eating, that I overlooked other groups of people who suffer from EDs that are a result of external conflicts other than body dysmorphia- a cause that has been collectively decided by researchers and their bias to be the only side of the disease worthy of treating psychologically. This was another powerful idea presented in the essay. But overall, I cannot explain personally what it is like to not receive eating disorder support that fails to account for people of color and the “structural relationships of racism,” which is just one of the causes of eating disorders that goes unrecognized. The main thing I can do is bring attention to this topic in hopes that others will be fueled with a desire to advocate for marginalized voices who suffer from eating disorders to push for the accessibility to find drastically better diagnosis and recovery resources.

Research done by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) helped to confirm that “people of color are less likely to receive help for their eating issues.” When clinicians were shown the same eating disorder symptoms between white, Hispanic, and Black women they were asked if their behaviors were problematic. 44 percent said the white woman’s symptoms were problematic while 41 percent found the Hispanic woman’s eating behavior to be problematic and only 17 percent of the clinicians believed the Black woman’s disordered eating was problematic.

NEDA also reported in a study that it was discovered “Hispanics were more likely to suffer from bulimia than non-Hispanics. There was also a trend towards a higher prevalence of binge eating disorder in all minority groups.” Yet despite this being true, it’s never highlighted to the extent that white female teenagers who have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are. The reason behind this has much to do with racial discrimination, but also because of the ED stereotype that the disease is “an issue affecting white femininity,” and therefore “makes [them] simpler, cleaner, and easier to understand,” wrote Riobueno-Naylor. When you really think about this statement the more recognizable it is in our culture too. There aren’t movies that provide knowledge on people of color and their struggles with EDs as Riobueno-Naylor pointed out.

And as referenced above, since eating disorders can be so complex in the way people develop them along with their symptoms, Becky W. Thompson author of “A hunger so wide and so deep,” puts it simply when she wrote: “eating problems begin as survival strategies- as sensible acts of self  preservation- in response to myriad injustices including racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, the stress of acculturation, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.” It would make sense that if these factors were accepted as they are then there would be a safer place for people of color to reach out for the eating disorder help they deserve to receive.

Unfortunately, there are more obstacles that are present and only accepting will not magically create progress, there is still the issue of how much treatment costs and also location of treatment centers. Therefore, Riobueno-Naylor talked about monetary accommodations in interviews with clinicians. There still remains that “the less tangible accommodations that clinicians struggled with had to do with the fact that almost half of clinicians realized that many non-traditional ED sufferers may feel misunderstood by healthcare providers or not have a way to seek out help from mental health professionals which may keep them from seeking out care.”

I cannot say what exactly needs to be done to create change when it is not my place. I have not experienced firsthand what marginalized groups face when suffering from eating disorders. Riobueno-Naylor wrote that “more multiracial and multicultural perspectives must be included within diagnostic criteria if we hope for all people to receive proper ED diagnoses and treatment,” and this is only possible if training that certifies ED clinicians teaches them how to “recognize and advocate for issues related to both individual and institutional racism, colorism, classism, and sexism.”

Returning back to my original statements, it is now apparent to me that there is a necessity for change in the way our culture acknowledges eating disorders so that POC and other marginalized groups are included in treatment and support that is more accessible and better fit for their needs. It’s  difficult to fully advocate for EDs to be recognized in legislation when there are so many inequities that remain in the healthcare system and need to be solved.

“In short, those suffering from eating problems are thought to be decadent, self absorbed, and heavily implicated in their own troubles. Such conceptions are misguided, short-sighted, and harmful. They are built on skewed assumptions about race, class, sexism, and sexuality that belittle the putative victims- white, middle-class, heterosexual women- while they ignore women of color, working-class women, and lesbians,” said Thompson.

Nalgona Positivity Pride was founded by Gloria Lucas. The organization “is an in-community eating disorders and body-positive organization dedicated in creating visibility and resources for Black, Indigenous, communities of color (BICC).”